The Trump Presidency: A First Glance from London

Main Image Credit Donald Trump waves to crowds in New York at his election night rally. Courtesy of PA Images/John Locher.

As the world prepares for Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States in January, here are some key issues that the British defence establishment will need to consider. 

Donald Trump’s campaign team did not provide any real detail about his foreign and defence policies during the election, but the sound-bites offer an indication of the potential direction of his administration.

It remains to be seen whether the rhetoric of the past twelve months – sometimes described as ‘isolationist’ – is matched by reality when he assumes office, but even a policy that reduces US commitments to discharge the country’s duties as a ‘world policeman’ is not as unprecedented as is commonly assumed, and it is not always disastrous.

The Eisenhower Doctrine, for example, was noted for its reliance on a nuclear guarantee and a drawdown of conventional force structures in order to achieve a more restrained budgetary expenditure. It also envisaged the US becoming a force of last resort to prevent regional conflicts; for conflicts below this threshold, America’s allies were expected to fend for themselves.

So, a future Trump policy might make it more likely that allies and alliances will be expected to ‘man-up’ for operations, and to pay their way. Foreign governments will potentially be required to pay more for the basing of US troops on their soil and – perhaps in a more extreme scenario – the US security guarantee could become more conditional. For example, the US might only extend a guarantee under NATO’s Article V for those countries which spend 2% of their GDP on defence.

All are tricky subjects. But they are also ideas which, in one way or another, resonate with many senior US military leaders who have been making similar demands for decades.

But why are such musings merely potential for the moment? There are two important reasons. First, it is not clear who Trump’s defence advisers will be. Historically, key retired military officers and policy advisers have made appearances during the campaign and their views are well known both at home and outside the US. Not so this time, however, as many of the ‘natural’ establishment candidates have shied away from Trump’s campaign. Whoever he recruits for such a role once he is in the White House will play a key part as a hawk or a more calming influence. So, Trump’s words during the campaign may not equal his deeds in office.

Second, it is not clear how much power the new president will be able to wield given the combative nature of relationships with senior defence personalities in both the Senate and in the House of Representatives, particularly given the bad blood which Trump generated during the election campaign. Whilst Trump might be able to authorise military interventions through Executive Orders without consulting others, funding these or altering the force design or structure of the US armed forces requires the approval of both chambers. How Trump garners support from those alienated during the campaign remains to be seen, and the task might be more difficult than his team currently appreciates.

For the UK, there is unlikely to be any real change to the much-vaunted ‘special relationship’. Intelligence-sharing will continue (although this has never been flawless among some of the intelligence agencies), submarines will sail, special forces and armies will continue to cooperate against Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS), and respective air forces will de-conflict drone operations.

However, financially the picture is unlikely to be as rosy. Many of the new platforms announced in last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review are coming from US defence companies. Given exchange rate fluctuations, the costs associated with these will become markedly less certain, potentially adding unwelcome pressure on the Ministry of Defence’s very tight budget.

Yet all of this does not change the core of the UK–US relationship, which many scholars have claimed is determined by the personal interactions between prime minister and president, and the compatibility of their personalities. One cannot help but feel that British Prime Minister Theresa May will have to play a clever hand to ensure that Trump remains as much of a friend to the UK as – notwithstanding his reservations – President Barack Obama.

How much a (relatively) liberal UK is willing to compromise its values and morals in order to stay at the (US) table may be a question that needs to be addressed – and soon.

It appears that the Trump era might well see a return to a period of great power politics and spheres of influence, focusing on more open tension with China on both trade and behaviours, and perhaps an easing of tensions with Russia. Neither of these states is likely to welcome a Trump presidency, however: his unpredictability will add significant uncertainty and thus complexity to their decision-making processes. It might actually give the US the upper hand in dealing with them and assist Washington in retaking the initiative in military affairs. Yet it also brings the risk of unintentional escalation through misunderstanding.

For allies, including the UK, the lack of predictable responses and policies from Washington is unlikely to be welcomed. Fighting alongside the US over the next four years will be less frequent, more intensive and faster. The newly elected president is known to expect success, value for money and quick, decisive results.

After the Brexit decision, the UK does not have the option of rebalancing relationships away from the US towards a more politically aligned body and so the British military will need to trim its sights accordingly, and adjust to the new reality. But it is the British political establishment that will need to make the greatest adjustment. 


Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

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